There’s something to be said about the power of telling a story through the environment, utilising details and objects to portray a simple narrative in a more tactile way than simple text or dialogue. What would it be like, then, if this kind of storytelling was attempted in a digital environment? Using pictures and smartphone apps to provide that same kind of context? A Normal Lost Phone aims to provide that kind of experience, but it unfortunately comes up short, wasting the potential that exists in such an interesting premise.
Gameplay is centered around the concept of you having just found a lost phone, and your job is to root around in it to deduce how to find the owner. There’s no instruction or direction to speak of, just an unlocked smartphone filled with the various tidbits of a person’s life. Through piecing together disparate fragments of information from a variety of sources, you gradually ‘unlock’ more of the phone as you learn passwords, which then gives way to more information. For example, the phone is initially disconnected from Wi-Fi, and the only available network requires a password. One of the texting conversations contains a reference to the password, which can then be inferred from a string of information you find elsewhere in the phone.
That ‘Aha!’ moment when you figure out another important piece of info that gives you access to another portion of the phone is quite satisfying, and there’s plenty of those moments scattered throughout, but the pacing of the overall puzzle is far too uneven. Most of the time, it’s a simple matter of trial and error mixed in with some basic deduction techniques to find the way forward, but we ran into a few walls that brought the experience to a screeching halt. In hindsight, the solutions to these problems made some sense, but they assumed the player would take large leaps in logic that were hardly reasonable. When there are sufficient hints to subtly point you towards where you should look next, the sleuthing can be fun and engaging, but when there aren’t, it quickly becomes monotonous and frustrating.
While searching for clues, you naturally browse through lots of random information about the phone’s owner, and this is where the meat of the story comes in. It’s remarkable how well the developers can craft meaningful characters out of chat conversations and screenshots, there are many instances where the little details and nuances of how a person communicates are nailed perfectly. Unfortunately, there are just as many instances where the writing falls flat. All too often, conversations feel rigid and set up, and it doesn’t take very long for it to become glaringly obvious that the developers are pushing an agenda. While this is certainly a unique and creative way of going about it, there are a few too many moments where the ham-fisted preachiness gets overbearing, and the story gives way to cliché and unrealistic portrayals of conversation.
From a presentation perspective, A Normal Lost Phone does a decent job of emulating the environment of a mobile operating system, though it lacks the polish and detail to make it convincing. There is a relatively sizable soundtrack of acoustic guitar pieces, cleverly controlled through the phone’s music app, though the music feels disconnected from the overall experience, and has a strange presence as you browse. It’s also painfully obvious that this game was not designed for a game console at all; playing in horizontal mode displays a smartphone screen flanked by two bars of static patterns that change depending on the app you have open. Fortunately, you can play the game with your Switch held vertically, and the touch controls are naturally a much better option than navigating with a stick.
Another key point that bears mentioning is the almost total lack of replay value present in A Normal Lost Phone. It’ll take you an hour (maybe two) to see everything this game has to offer, and there’s not much else you can do beyond that. Data can be wiped and you can start over, but then the experience loses its whole point. Granted, this isn’t as much of an issue given the low price point, but just bear in mind that this is the kind of game you’ll play once for a short while and then delete it for good.
A Normal Lost Phone is a tough game to recommend. The concept is intriguing and there’s a genuinely interesting narrative at the center of the experience, but it’s all so fraught by poor execution and mediocre presentation that we can hardly suggest you pick this one up. You could do a whole lot worse for three bucks, but you’re also getting exactly what you pay for and nothing more. If you have some credit leftover in your account from another eShop purchase and feel like distracting yourself with a mildly entertaining adventure game, this one may be worth a look, but you’d best take a pass.